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Pulitzer Center Update June 11, 2012

Kenya: Behind the Stories on Nairobi's Dandora Dump


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David Conrad's guides try to navigate the hills of Dandora. Image by Micah Albert. Kenya, 2012.

In the final stage of this project, I can't help but reflect on the angles we may have missed. It's only natural that certain sources and quotes never make it to print, but there are a few stories that I really wish did.

Aggrey Willis Otieno

Every journalist is indebted to a team of usually unnamed sources—people whose names never make it to print, but who were essential during the reporting process.

We wrote about the grassroots campaign, Stop Dumping Death on Us, which sought the removal of the dumpsite and better treatment by the Kenyan government of everyone living in the site's surrounding slums. We didn't, however, write about the person who came up with this project idea and whose NGO is currently fighting much of the marginalization that we witnessed.

This story would have never happened if Aggrey Otieno didn't continually insist that it did happen. Otieno was born in Korogocho, a slum that directly borders Dandora. We met at Ohio University in 2009, where he was working toward a master's degree in international affairs as part of the last round of Ford Foundation scholars.

He repeatedly told me, and anyone else who would listen, about this dumpsite back where he was born. He constantly encouraged us to go there and help bring awareness to it. After three years, we finally did. Considering that Nairobi serves as the journalism hub for correspondents based in East and Central Africa, it really surprised us that an issue—which was of great importance to a large portion of the Nairobi population—could go uncovered for so long.

Once arriving in Dandora, photographer Micah Albert and I met a network of people who helped us with the everyday reporting challenges—a male and female translator, a driver, and scores of community leaders. Eventually he helped us to meet Tiger, the 27-year-old leader of the cartel that governs the dumpsite, who provided us with security every minute that we were there. All these people provided us with access to the site and community in a manner that only they could.

This team helped us because they were either a part of or respected Otieno's Pambazuko Mashinani NGO—loosely translated as "grassroots awakening." He created Pambazuko Mashinani with the aim of building a society where the urban poor are empowered to bring about transformative social change in their own lives, using the media to raise generative awareness being one strand of this.

"It's our mission to build the information, power and capacity of the urban poor people to inform each other, connect and engage as healthy and dignified participative, change-driving citizens," says Otieno.

He has received over $2 million in funding from development organizations that include the World Bank, the Clinton Foundation, and the United Nations Development Program. In the communities that surround Dandora, all of this money has gone to support development projects on reducing tuberculosis, maternal and neonatal mortality, testing knowledge of local governance issues, and creating social change through sports.

The truth is that, more often than not, leaders like Otieno shine a light on the neglected stories taking place the world over. Time after time it is journalists who merely become lucky enough to cross paths with these remarkable men and women.

While Dandora certainly represents an urgent and grossly neglected humanitarian crisis, there is certainly more happening in the slums of Nairobi than death and dependence. While I know it's an impossible task for journalists to include all of the people who made their stories possible – there is no room for an acknowledgements section in a newspaper or magazine – we should start finding a way to include their stories as well. For me, this blog entry is a start.

The Growing Informal Sector in Nairobi

The burgeoning informal sector in Africa is something that I hope to explore further after this project. In the Foreign Policy article we were able to start this conversation a little, but I wish we could have explored this further.

The trash pickers of Dandora fall squarely in the middle of a much larger informal sector that is growing in cities throughout the African continent. For many urban planning and development experts, the story of Dandora demonstrates a city's inability to govern its growing informal sector and thus reflects a widely shared problem of rapid urbanization.

"Many cities just cannot keep up with the population growth they are seeing and urban upgrading in sub-Saharan African cannot be done by simply erasing informal settlements," says Rosalind Fredericks, an assistant professor at New York University who specializes in the political economy of development. "They have to be somehow absorbed into the economy and operations of the city."

Nairobi city council members recognized the health problems that Dandora was creating, but in the same breath blamed the megapolis's rapid population growth—the city has grown from 827,775 in 1979 to 3.2 million today—and the city's overwhelmed bureaucracy for their slowness to act on the dumpsite. For Fredericks, this is a widely shared problem that reflects directly how far apart city governance and the informal sector have grown.

In another discussion that wasn't able to make it to print, Professor David McDonald of Canada's Queens University said that this informal sector is often celebrated to its own detriment.

"We have come to celebrate the informal sector rather than hang our heads in shame," said McDonald, head of Global Development Studies at Queen's University. "I think this ideology of entrepreneurship and self-help, coupled with the privatization of public services, has allowed the state to financially, logistically, and morally distance itself from the responsibility of managing waste."

JICA and the Next Step: Privatizing Waste Management

Lastly, while the first round of stories we have written on Dandora focused on the site itself, another important story is on the horizon. The Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA)—one of the world's largest development agencies—is currently studying the cost of closing Dandora in favor of an area near Jomo Kenyatta International Airport even though airport officials have expressed fear the site will attract birds and interfere with air traffic

JICA has shown interest in Dandora. They have completed at least two studies on the site that have focused on relocation strategies. JICA officials declined to comment on the story, but city council officials told me that they have been working closely with the Japanese corporation for the last decade.

In fact, over the next five years, waste management in Nairobi could be entirely contracted to JICA, potentially sparking a new debate on the implications that privatizing services (especially to international organizations) can have in urban planning. Privatization of basic services (like waste management) is something that McDonald, among others, is very skeptical about.

Without having an in-depth conversation with JICA officials I was uncomfortable writing much about this next phase of waste management in Nairobi. But it is certainly an area worthy of our attention over the coming years.


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